Novel about my wife – New Zealand e-book month

Tom Stone, skinnyish, fortyish, English, is madly in love with his wife Ann, an Australian in self-imposed exile in London. Pushing forty and expecting their first child, they buy their first, semi-derelict house in Hackney. They believe this is their settled future, despite Tom’s stalling career and their spiralling money troubles. But Ann becomes convinced she’s being shadowed by a local homeless man whose presence seems like a terrible omen.

As her pregnancy progresses she spends hours cleaning and reorganising the house, and sits up all night talking with a new feverish passion. As their child grows, so too does Tom’s sense of an impending, nameless threat. Their home appears beset with vermin, smells and strange noises. On the verge of losing the house, Tom makes a decision that he hopes will save their lives.

You can read Novel about my wife as an e-book from our Overdrive collection.

Novel about my wife is also available as a paper , audio and large print book.

Fiction writer bends time: Emily Perkins

Kate Grenville, Sue Woolfe and Emily PerkinsSaturday 9.30am – people will get out of bed for Emily Perkins. A healthy crowd filled the YMCA venue and they were treated to a great session. Novelist Rachael King was the perfect host (Emily’s exact contemporary) and it was a conversation between two fine New Zealand writers.

Both Emily and Rachael were born in 1970, and coincidentally it is the only year ever mentioned in The Forrests. Throughout the novel, Emily doesn’t mention the year, or get too absorbed in period detail – it is a story of feelings and relationships, and gives only clues to the passing of time. Otherwise it could be:

Then Dorothy strapped her hovercraft to her back …

The move from London to Auckland has an impact on Emily’s work. She felt on a high from lushness and colour, and the seasonal change from a sludgy wet winter to spring “everything crisps up and becomes tingly”.

Rachael pointed how well Emily evokes an atmosphere, and the centrality of language. Expressions like “prinkling” and unusual words just came to her:

I wanted the language to have the texture that life has … I wanted to be open to the weirdness of language.

One of the titles that influenced her was The Ask by Sam Lipsyte with its exhilarating “open loose wave” of language.

The discussion turned to Emily’s attention to detail:

I do love the writing that’s about things … the concrete surrounds of our lives … paying attention in an acute way to daily domestic details is of value. We spend most of our time being very ordinary.

One of the lovely things we can do as fiction writer is bend time.

The structure of the novel is interesting:

Things do accrue and add up and come to a different kind of significance.

Emily noted that in life anything can happen, and that we in Christchurch know that better than most …

It’s a discontinuous narrative, because “our lives aren’t a narrative”. Philosophers suggest there are two camps – those who see life as a continuous narrative with a trajectory, and those who say “Was that me then?” Certain things we experience very fully, and then shed. Lives not lived also provide narrative tension.

Emily discussed the novel’s origins. The Forrests began as a 50,000 word MA thesis, with no chapter breaks. It was then expanded and she had to decide between the primacy of structure and another unusual, experimental element she wouldn’t tell us about (because she may use it in another work). She chose structure, and made it easier to connect with.

Taking questions from the floor,  I asked about the novel’s ecstatic ending. She mentioned Damien Wilkins, who said endings should “turn up the volume”.

This was a brilliant session – the only improvement would have been making it a two hour gig with Emily and Rachael swapping roles halfway through. They were both brilliant at getting to the core of creativity.

“We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people”: The secret life of the novel

The Secret life of the novel at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a “let’s have a look under the hood” examination of the process of writing. It worked well with Owen Marshall in the chair and Aussies Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville and Kiwi Emily Perkins on the panel – they’re all teachers of writing.


Kate likes Bernard Malamud’s statement “I don’t teach writers, I teach writing”. She encourages her students to write playfully, and not to worry about grammar or the market. It is important to “give people permission to speak with the voice that is uniquely theirs”. Sue’s classes are unusual in that students don’t read their work aloud. She thinks it is important to help students “stumble upon something they almost didn’t dare say”. In Emily’s classes, students read each other’s work out.


Owen asked the panellists about reading. Sue said “books parented her”. She loved Enid Blyton, and families not as weird as hers. Kate loved Captain W.E. Johns (Biggles) though says it was “the most appalling tripe”. She made an interesting distinction between “reading as a reader” and “reading as a writer”. Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out was a revelation to her as a writer: “It’s not that good”.

Emily felt a bit the same about reading some of Katherine Mansfield’s earlier work (such as The Tiredness of Rosabel): “You can see the workings … so unlike what she came too” in terms of authorial voice. For Emily

When I think of my childhood, I think of books.

Camping holidays as an adult are a revelation, because now she looks at the landscape whereas before she’d have had her nose in a book.

Fixations and character and research

Emily: “I’m really interested in how we construct ourselves … I find character in fiction so fascinating. All the different alchemies that go with writing and reading … We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people … Character is made on the page. I don’t see hard lines around them …”

Sue: Characters are more a consciousness … “at the end I give them hair and eyes … I don’t create them, I collude with them … they are like imaginary friends.”

Kate:  “There is something quite spooky when character takes over …”

Kate: “I resist the term historical fiction. I avoid it like the plague …. Research shows the contradictions. It doesn’t make sense but I know it happened.

Writing and the arrival of ideas

Emily: “You enter a bubble .. the skin of the world of the book is all around you.”

Kate wrote the outline of her new story on a brown paper bag containing her lunch. Has written ideas on a opened up Panadol packet at a kid’s birthday party.

Sue writes down odd phrases, bits of sentences.

Emily has documents in a computer, and has been known to text ideas to herself if she has no paper.

How to get writing and calm your inner editor

Emily: Just write. “You can’t fix nothing”.

Sue: “I was just writing, I wasn’t trying to make a novel … scene after scene, it made itself into a book … Sometimes the dialogue is right, but it’s been given to the wrong character … Everything is fluid.”

Emily: “Everything is malleable until the last minute”.

Remembrance of festivals past

Christchurch Writers Festival 2012 logoIn the city of memories it’s hard to resist looking back. When was the first Christchurch Writers Festival I attended? I used to have a full collection of programmes so I could have checked, but not any more.

It was certainly held in the Arts Centre in the winter, because I remember the fire burning in the Great Hall. There have been so many great writers over the years; who stands out? In a quietly powerful  New Zealand way Noel Virtue and Beryl Fletcher. In a “hairs standing up on the back of your neck I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” sort of way Tusiata Avia. In a “this guy wrote a book that was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg” way Tom Keneally.

Margaret Mahy, mesmerising on the stage and asking the most amazing questions from the floor.  And Don McGlashan with the Seven Sisters in the Town Hall.

Cover: GoldEnough looking back, it’s time for some new memories and not long to wait for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2012. On my most likely to be memorable list are Emily Perkins, John Lanchester, Chris Cleave, Michael Smythe, Joanne Drayton.

Who am I kidding? I’m looking forward to all the writers. I’ll be at every session humanly possible. I won’t be in a Great or a Town Hall, but in two years’ time I might be blogging about how the Geo Dome was the most memorable of all.

What memories do you have of past writers festivals? And who are you looking forward to this time?

Holding pattern

What to do when two eagerly awaited holds arrive at the same time? Which one to sacrifice so that the next reader on the list can get it?

Cover: "The Forrests"Facing this dilemma with Bring up the bodies and The Forrests, both with glowing reviews, I did something I would never have done when I had a stricter attitude to starting a book and not finishing it. I read the first chapter of each and then chose.

Being reluctant to close Bring up the bodies after finishing my café coffee, made me decide that The Forrests had to come back. Despite Emily Perkins rocking a little black dress in a manner worthy of Audrey Hepburn at the final Montana Book Awards, despite her being a friend of my hero Geoff Dyer, despite readers I respect naming Novel about my wife as one of their all-time best books, I’ll go back to the bottom of the list for The Forrests and immerse myself in the last days of Anne Boleyn.

It’s good to have a goal and reading The Forrests before Emily Perkins arrives for The Press Writers Festival in September is doable, I think. Plus, the closer to the festival the better the chance of remembering a good question to ask at her sessions.

How do you choose the next book off the pile?

The future of the novel is ……..

Here’s how my day started. No internet connection, burnt toast at breakfast and a room change.

But then things got much, much better. The future of the novel was a festival event with Jeffrey Eugenides and Emily Perkins discussing whether the novel has been fatally wounded by the modern breakdown of marriage. I managed to squeeze into the venue and nab one of the last eight seats.

Listening to authors of this calibre talking about the novel, you do not want it to die. You want it to live and thrive well into the future. And according to these two authors it will. Because what is at the heart of every good novel is not marriage, maybe not even love but – desire. And desire, let’s face it, is here to stay.

As Eugenides , the author of The Marriage Plot,  said:

Every novel of mine has desire at its centre. You can’t find a dramatic scenario centred on the absence of desire.

And Emily Perkins, who wrote The Forrests,  quoted from one of Goeff Dyer’s Rules of Writing:

Have regrets in your writing, because on the page they flare into desire

Both writers also commented on humour in writing, about good writing making the tragic comic. Eugenides says all his writing is a blend of tragedy and comedy and as Perkins put it:

There is absurdity in everything

It was in question time that things got really scary. Several of the questions related to technology and the future of the novel. Eugenides is very nervous of the direction in which technology is taking writing. He has no internet connection on his work computer which he essentially uses as a word processer. He says: “I don’t like the cloud!”

But in answer to further questions in this vein, both authors conceded there is a possibility in the future that there will be collective ownership of writing on sites like Twitter. People will just add bits of writing onto other peoples’ writing, creating never-ending stories . This will all be done anonymously. The future of the novel will be The Zombie Novel.

Perkins looked pale and Eugenides said “Now I feel depressed.”

It was a brilliant session.

Wilkins, Perkins classic Kiwi authors

Wilkins and PerkinsEmily Perkins and Damien Wilkins are classic New Zealand writers in the sense that writing isn’t the only thing they do. Both have other strings to their bow, other jobs – Perkins as host of The Good Word, and Wilkins as a lecturer at Victoria University.

Their careers also follow a similar path: major early success – Not her real name for Perkins and The Miserables for Wilkins. Both made careers overseas and both now work in New Zealand and both are published in New Zeland by Victoria University Press.

Fergus Barrowman, their publisher and former teacher, hosted, and was rightly proud of their success. An absorbing, and detailed session followed, which concentrated on the writing process, the challenging and invigorating process of teaching creative writing.

We discovered that Wilkins dislikes satirical writing, and prefers dialogue, which took him a long time to learn; Perkins dislikes protected characters The readings from each author were well chosen and appreciated by the audience.

The session could easily have gone on for another hour, as one of the audience landed a great topic, with the great question of what is the New Zealand story? Colm Toibin had written it was about children.
Wilkins agreed – as New Zealand is a young literary culture it made quite a lot of sense. Our films are also full of child’s commentary on the adult world. Janet Frame had a hotline to child fears, he said;  a child’s lack of power, lack of control. Perkins said for an author the child as agent is a thrilling kind of figure. Barrowman added that Katherine Mansfield  never created an adult relationship in her writing which was as interesting as the relationships of the children in her work and that she satirised adults.

What do you think – is the great New Zealand story set on a farm? Is all the emotion in the silences? Is it about childhood? Tell us your great New Zealand story.